Of all the films to be released in theaters after March 2020, I’ve regretted missing none of them more than I’ve been regretting missing Bill & Ted Face the Music, the long-awaited reunion of Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as good-natured rockin’ goofballs Bill S. Preston, Esq., and Ted “Theodore” Logan. The first two films were hilarious delights back in their day and, while I was prepared to live the rest of my life without a trilogy realized, years of negotiations with skeptical studios finally came together courtesy of original writers/creators Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, along with director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest). Thus did their dream come true in the worst possible year of this millennium.
From August onward I kept doggedly checking On Demand prices every weekend but was reluctant to pull the trigger on a $15-$20 home viewing experience. Fans of pay-per-view sports may be accustomed to that or far worse, but for that price, if I have to play it on my own inferior equipment, then I insist on physical custody. I was willing to go as high as maybe eight bucks, but they kept holding out on me. This past Tuesday The Powers That Be relented and BTFM finally materialized at Redbox. And for a most non-non-non-heinous price well under eight bucks.
Short version for the unfamiliar: Previously on “Bill & Ted”, Our Heroes’ Bogus Journey ended with them becoming super awesome superstars secure in the knowledge that they would one day write the one song that would unite all humanity and usher in a new era of excellence for one and all. And they and their wives, both princesses from medieval times, all lived happily ever after.
Twenty-five years later, those lofty expectations have yet to be met. Bill and Ted are washed-up losers, dragging behind them a long string of poor musical choices and even poorer reviews. Their arena days are well behind them. The old band broke up. Their former bassist Death is no longer speaking to them. But the duo rocks wherever and whenever possible, even though the best gig they can score is Ted’s little brother’s wedding. If only they’d fallen apart a few years earlier, they could’ve starred in their own episode of Behind the Music.
But time, tide, and the space-time continuum wait for no one. Glitches start happening up and down the timestream as famous personalities begin warping and reappearing out of place, a recognizable phenomenon for anyone who’s watched Legends of Tomorrow or read Crisis on Infinite Earths (I’m sure some ancient Doctor Who arcs probably went there, too). Bill and Ted don’t actually notice any of it, but someone has to loop them in anyway — an envoy from the future named Kelly (30 Rock‘s Kristen Schaal), daughter of their old time-traveling pal Rufus (RIP George Carlin, who sort of has a posthumous cameo). The entire universe is going wibbly-wobbly and about to collapse if Bill and Ted don’t stop messing around and finally write The One Song. And they have [checks stopwatch] 77 minutes to do it. Or Else. No pressure, Good luck. We’re all counting on you.
Bill and Ted of course fall back on one of their classic, tried-and-true solutions: why not go to the future and steal The One Song from themselves after they’ve already written it? Time paradoxes are nothing new to them and have yet to rend asunder the very fabric of existence itself, so that’s no big deal. No, the problem is figuring out how far into the future to jump. As they soon discover, or will discover, or will have discovered, they remain failures for a very, very, very long time.
Meanwhile in the background, another duo has enacted their own Plan B. Their kids Billie and Thea (Brigette Lundy-Paine and Ready or Not‘s Samara Weaving) have grown up into a pair of most righteous music geeks. With some assistance from Kelly, Billie and Thea borrow one of their dads’ other classic, tried-and-true solutions: they go back in time across multiple eras, genres, continents, and demographics to assemble the greatest musical supergroup of all times. Like USA for Africa, except good.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Returning players from the first two films include William Sadler (now an executive producer!) as Death Himself; character actor Hal Landon Jr. as Ted’s dad; and Amy Stoch as Bill and Ted’s former classmate/stepmom Missy, who’s moving on to yet another husband. Alas, the princesses are not the same actresses as before; now aboard for the ride are Jayma Mays (Paul Blart: Mall Cop) and Erinn Hayes (tastemaker Annabel Porter from Parks & Rec), who love their husbands but as former medieval babes, even they recognize their husbands still have some growing to do.
Newcomers include Holland Taylor (TV’s Bosom Buddies) as the Great Leader in the future who orders Bill and Ted to meet the deadline Or Else; Anthony Carrigan (wonderful on HBO’s Barry) as a killer robot sent to motivate Our Heroes with artificial conflict; current SNL player Beck Bennett as Ted’s little brother, all grown up and on the police force alongside their dad; and Jeremiah Craft (one of Luke Cage‘s biggest fans) as Louis Armstrong, one of the first recruits to Billie and Thea’s jam session.
Famous faces representing for themselves along the way include Kid Cudi as a version of himself who can spew more technobabble about quantum entanglement than the entire Ant-Man cast; and the Dave Grohl, who has a very nice house.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Whereas Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey were frivolous escapades, Face the Music is the brainchild of an older cast and crew with a more wizened perspective on our two man-child rock stars, and they have questions on their minds. What’s it like to be so certain of your talent and your future that you don’t notice how badly you’re squandering everything — your potential, your career, your relationships, your meaning and purpose in life — until you’re old and it’s almost too late? What if winning at life takes a lot more than just playing and loving music?
For Our Heroes, this time it’s not just about finishing an assignment, becoming rock gods, or saving their own lives. A lot of other people are depending on them, up to and including the entire human race. They kind of get it, but do they have the capacity to really understand what that means and the mental toolkit to do the thing? What do these two haggard-looking dudes in their mid-fifties have in them that’ll overcome their has-been status? Because it’ll take more than smiles and good deeds to nail The One Song.
Fortunately for them and the world in that order, that’s where friends and family come in. Because support networks are important. Billie and Thea arguably have treated their dads as role models perhaps a bit too imitatively (Lundy-Paine in particular seems to have taken an injection of teenage Keanu’s swaying restlessness directly to the heart), but they’ve also taken some important cues from them. In one form or another, the old credo “Be Excellent to Each Other” translates well across the generations, and into multiple languages and scriptures.
That sincere recommendation to express and exhibit love for others, which is like some kind of Rule that is totally Golden, is the film’s biggest driver. It’s an exhortation of harmony and unity, a hope that we can find peace through celebrating our commonalities, burying our differences, and learning to be better people in the process. To some, that might feel a bit old-fashioned in our current dark timeline when everyday internet interactions end in rage with combatants wishing bloodied genocide upon their arch-nemeses.
If it helps, at least Bill and Ted no longer subsist on a diet of hair metal alone. The soundtrack and the path to The One Song is all over the musical map. There’s even a scene of someone playing a theremin. Yes, A THEREMIN.
Nitpicking? What passes for external antagonism here is barely felt. The time glitches are few and fleeting, none mattering except as sight gags. Thus it is declared Bill and Ted must die because…reasons? Hence the killer robot, whose presence is a plot necessity that stitches together the two final acts. The film acknowledges some of his nonsense, and Carrigan is a keeper, but he reads almost as a broad parody of unnecessary henchmen from older comedy flicks.
BTFM has its share of chuckles, but about halfway through I realized they were sporadic. I don’t know that I would call middle-age Bill and Ted serious sci-fi heroes, but much of what they do is efficiently quest-driven, far less focused on gags and dimwitted misstatements than I recall. There’re some of each in moderation, not prevalent enough to set the tone. It’s almost as if Bill and Ted have wised up at least slightly enough so that the screenplay isn’t all about mining easy levity at their expense. Is it actually legal for the former butts of jokes to grow up like that?
So what’s to like? As a middle-aged guy, it’s weird to see formerly youthful characters catch up with you and survive the transition. On a weirder level I can also identify with how the villains giving Bill and Ted the biggest headaches are Bill and Ted themselves. Whether it’s me cursing my younger self under my breath or Superman punching his dark half in Superman 3, I have a soft spot for tales in which the real enemies were the selves we became along the way.
Silliness still pokes in around the edges. Technically wackiness still abounds, but it’s less interesting to focus on than their infinite capacity for irresistible sweetness and optimism. They’re clearly out of touch with The Year of Our Doom 2020, among other concepts flying over their heads. They have their limitations, their deficiencies, their areas of ignorance, their lapses in logic, their empty resumes, their loved ones who just can’t be straight with them…wait, where was I going with this?
Through thick and thin, they live life as if conflict resolution is just that simple. Write the song, play the concert, save the day, get the girls again. What if we all agree to go back in time and pretend it were that simple for at least ninety buoyant minutes? What if we find ways to survive and sustain each other through the horrors of now and look forward to a future made possible for a new generation for whom peace and inclusiveness are natural, automatic results of their choices? Not to mention cool music?
Bill & Ted Face the Music obviously wasn’t made with 2020 in mind, but it’s a reminder that 2020 isn’t all that we once were and shouldn’t define all that we’ll be ever after. We can each keep on growing into our worst selves, or we can extract the best parts of our past and use those to divert toward a better future. And we don’t have to do it alone.
How about those end credits? To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is indeed a scene after the Bill & Ted Face the Music end credits. The scene comes much later, after an initial end-credits montage of musicians around the world doing musical things (including the Weird Al Yankovic!) and a Special Thanks section whose honorees include “Good Robots Bill and Ted”. For those who tuned out prematurely and really want to know after their rental period expired…
[insert space for courtesy spoiler alert in case anyone needs to abandon ship]
…we return one last time to Elderly Bill and Elderly Ted in their nursing home beds. After each of them makes sure the other is still alive, they agree there’s one more thing they must do. They rise slowly, tenderly, achingly from beneath their covers. They plug in their guitars, crank up their amps, and play two solid minutes or so of bone-crunching volume-11 wailing metalhead riffage. Air guitar solos are fine, but nothing truly satisfies like non-imaginary electric guitars.
Then they lay down their axes and high-five. They are frail and high-fiving is really painful, but it’s totally worth it.